WhatsApp fueled a global disinformation crisis. Now, he’s stuck in one.


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Hours after WhatsApp announced a new privacy policy to the nearly 2 billion people around the world who use it, rumors flew quickly.

“Don’t accept the new WhatsApp policy,” said one of the messages that went viral on the platform. “Once you do, your WhatsApp account will be linked to your Facebook account and Zuckerberg will be able to see all your chats.”

“In a few months, WhatsApp will launch a new version that will show you ads based on your chats,” another said. “Don’t accept the new policy!”

Thousands of similar messages went viral on WhatsApp, Facebook’s proprietary instant messaging app, in the following days. Appealed by celebrities like Tesla CEO Elon Musk and whistleblower Edward Snowden, millions precipitated to download WhatsApp alternatives like Signal and Telegram.

There was only one problem: from the 4,000-word policy, it was clear that the new changes only applied if people used WhatsApp to chat with companies, not private conversations with friends and family.

No, the new conditions would not allow Facebook to read your WhatsApp chats, the company told everyone who asked. Top executives published long threads on Twitter and gave interviews to major publications in India, the largest market of the company. WhatsApp spent millions buying front page ads in major newspapers and published graphics denying the rumors on his website with a big “Share on WhatsApp” button, hoping to inject some truth into the flow of misinformation running through his platform. The company also encouraged Facebook employees to share these infographics, according to posts on its internal message board workplace.

“There has been a lot of misinformation and confusion, so we are working to provide accurate information on how WhatsApp protects people’s personal conversations,” a WhatsApp spokesman told BuzzFeed News. “We are using our status feature to communicate directly with people on WhatsApp, as well as post accurate information on social media and on our website in dozens of languages. Of course, we have also made these resources available to people who work at our company, so they can answer questions directly to friends and family if they want to. “

Nothing worked.

“There has been a lot of misinformation that caused concern and we want to help everyone understand our principles and facts,” WhatsApp wrote in a blog post last week announcing that the company would delay the new privacy policy by three months. “We will also do much more to clear up misinformation about how privacy and security works on WhatsApp,” he wrote.

Thanks to everyone who contacted me. We continue to work to combat any confusion by communicating directly with @WhatsApp users. No one will suspend or delete your account on February 8th and we will be back to our business plans until after May – https://t.co/H3DeSS0QfO


For years, rumors and deceptions spreading about WhatsApp have occurred it fueled a disinformation crisis in some of the most populous countries in the world, such as Brazil and India, where the app is the main way to talk to most people. Now, this crisis has reached the company itself.

“Confidence in the platforms is [at a] Claire Wardle, co-founder and director of First Draft, a nonprofit that investigates misinformation, told BuzzFeed News. “Awareness of the amount of data they are collecting about us. So when privacy policies change, people are right about what that means.”

Wardle said people are worried that WhatsApp will connect its behavior to the app with data from their Facebook accounts.

“Facebook and WhatsApp have a huge trust deficit,” said Pratik Sinha, founder of Alt News, a fact-checking platform in India. “Once you have this, any kind of misinformation attributed to you is easily consumed.”

What doesn’t help, Sinha and Wardle added, is the lack of understanding among ordinary people about how technology works and privacy. “The confusion is where misinformation thrives,” Wardle said, “so people saw the policy changes, jumped to conclusions, and, as expected, a lot of people believed the rumor.”

These patterns of misinformation that have thrived on WhatsApp for years have often caused damage. In 2013, a video went viral in Muzaffarnagar, a city in northern India that allegedly showed two young men being lynched, inciting riots between Hindu and Muslim communities in which dozens of people died. A police investigation found that the video was over two years old and not even shot in India. In Brazil, fake news flooded the platform and was used to favor far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro, who won the country’s 2018 presidential election.

But the company did not seriously address its misinformation issue until 2018, when rumors of child abductors sweeping the platform sparked a series of violent lynchings all over India. In a statement issued at the time, the IT Ministry of India warned WhatsApp sued and said the company would be “treated as a promoter” if it did not resolve the issue, sending WhatsApp into crisis mode. He led top executives from the Menlo Park, California headquarters in New Delhi to meet with government officials and journalists, and conducted high-profile awareness campaigns on misinformation.

Sam Panthaky / Getty Images

A July 2018 protest against crowd lynchings in India. Dozens of people were lynched across the country that year thanks to WhatsApp rumors, leaving both Indian authorities and WhatsApp looking for a solution.

It also incorporated new features into the app to directly counteract misinformation for the first time, such as tagging forwarded messages i restricting you can forward the number of people or groups that a content can reduce to curb viral content. In August last year, he did it also began allow people from a handful of countries to upload the text of a message to Google to verify that a forwarding was false. The feature is not yet available for WhatsApp users in India.

Since then, the company has been working in a tool that would allow users to search for images they had received in the app with a single tap in 2019, a move that would help people check the facts more easily. But almost two years later, there is no indication of the feature, although a text version is available in more than a dozen countries that, so far, do not include India.

“We are still working on the search tools feature,” a WhatsApp spokesman told BuzzFeed News.

WhatsApp said the company wanted to provide more clarity on its new privacy policy. “We want to reinforce that this update does not expand our ability to share data with Facebook. Our goal is to provide transparency and new options available to engage with businesses so they can serve their customers and grow,” the spokesman said. “WhatsApp will always protect end-to-end encrypted personal messages so that neither WhatsApp nor Facebook can see them. We are working to address misinformation and are available to answer any questions.”

This week, the company has put a status message, the equivalent of WhatsApp to a Facebook story, at the top of the people status section. Upon touching on the state, a number of company messages were revealed discrediting the rumors.

Screenshots of BuzzFeed News

“WhatsApp does not share your contacts with Facebook,” the former said. Two more status updates clarified that WhatsApp cannot see people’s location and cannot read or listen to encrypted personal conversations. “We are committed to your privacy,” the last message said.

On Thursday, employees had several questions to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg before a few weekly questions and answers, according to internal communications consulted by BuzzFeed News. Some wanted to know if the growing move to Signal and Telegram was affecting WhatsApp usage and growth metrics. Others wanted the CEO to discuss whether or not Facebook used WhatsApp metadata to run ads.

“You think we could have done a better job explaining it clearly [the new privacy policy] to users? someone asked.

“The public is furious and is changing WhatsApp’s PrivPolicy,” another person commented. “The mistrust on FB is so high that we should be more careful about it.”

Zuckerberg responded by saying he did not believe the company had managed the changes well.

“The short answer is no, I think we haven’t done as well as we should have,” he said. “And I think the team has already been dedicated to everything it has and has several lessons to make sure we do a better job in the future, not just on WhatsApp TOS. But you know, we have other updates from TOS for different applications and services. And we need to make sure we get better at these two. In this way, we minimize the amount of misinformation that is created and the amount of, and we minimize the amount of confusion that is created. .

Ryan Mac contributed to the reports.

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